Feynan's letters
May 12, 2005 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Richard Feynman wrote letters to all kinds of people. Here are some of them.
posted by TimothyMason (26 comments total)
The last one is a real heartbreaker.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:45 AM on May 12, 2005

God, it sure is. Thanks for posting this.
posted by languagehat at 6:53 AM on May 12, 2005

"PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don't know your new address." Awww.
posted by smackfu at 6:54 AM on May 12, 2005

So is this book not being released in the US? Amazon has nothing. That's both strange and annoying.
posted by smackfu at 6:59 AM on May 12, 2005

Wonderful. Thanks, TimothyMason.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:01 AM on May 12, 2005

I'm sure it's being released. It's being reviewed everywhere.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:53 AM on May 12, 2005

To Tord Pramberg, January 4, 1967

The fact that I beat a drum has nothing to do with the fact that I do theoretical physics. Theoretical physics is a human endeavour, one of the higher developments of human beings — and this perpetual desire to prove that people who do it are human by showing that they do other things that a few other humans do (like playing bongo drums) is insulting to me. I am human enough to tell you to go to hell.

posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:33 AM on May 12, 2005

smackfu: Perhaps Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track is the US title of this collection?

His first book of his humorous anecdotes, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, is wild and entertaining. I first read it as a teenager and I found it to be great fun.
posted by Lord Kinbote at 8:34 AM on May 12, 2005

Thanks all, for being better detectives than I and finding the US title.
posted by smackfu at 8:37 AM on May 12, 2005

You can admire his bongo technique here - along with other Feynman video snippets.
posted by TimothyMason at 8:41 AM on May 12, 2005

Great link! I agree the last letter was excellent.
posted by chunking express at 8:52 AM on May 12, 2005

Yep I have this book (Canadian edition) and it's called Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track, which is a phrase Feynman uses in a letter to a parent's concerns about their child being too interested in esoteric geeky subjects.

Here is a really good letter he wrote regarding "keeping in touch" with his mother:

August 30, 1954
My Dear Mom:

You have nothing. A small room in a hotel. Stuffy and no home with friends and family in it. A job that gives no enlightenment or has no further aim than to be done each day, building nothing for yourself. No easy transportation but to be jostled by the crowds. Nor fancy meals, nor luxurious trips, nor fame nor wealth. Children who rarely write. You have nothing.

So say your friends, but they are wrong. Wealth is not happiness nor is swimming pools and villas. Nor is great work alone reward, or fame. Foreign places visited themselves give nothing. It is only you who bring to the places your heart, or in your great work feeling, or in your large house place. If you do this there is happiness. Bu your heart can be as easily brought to Samarkand as to the Hudson river. Peace is as difficult to achieve in a large house as in a small one. Feeling can be brought to any work. Your friends of wealth have nothing because of it that they would lose, if with more modest means.

In the sea of material desire that is our country you have found an inlet and a harbor. You are far from perfectly happy, but are as contentful as you can be, with your make-up in the world that is. That is a great achievement, or a great woman.

Why do I write this? Because you have told me these things many times, and I have nodded, vaguely understanding. But you mention them again and again, so perhaps you think I do not understand. For so few understand, each friend questions you, each relative hounds you with the query, how can you live in such a tiny place, how can you work in that unbearable shop with those horrible sales girls? You know how. They could never do it, nor can they live as contentedly in any other way, for they do not possess your inner strength and greatness. A greatness which has come to realize itself thru the knowledge that, beyond poverty, beyond the point that the material needs are reasonably satisfied, only from within is peace.

I offer you all my resources of wealth. What do you want, what will you take? You can have anything $10,000 could bring you. I have offered many times. Not $10 worth can you think you need that you will let me give you. I bother you no more. I will never say it again, but you must always know that I will give you any material thing of wealth you could desire. Now or in my ability in the future. You have no insecurity. And tho you wrack your brains to think of something -- not the smaller item suggests itself to you. No man is rich who is unsatisfied, but who wants nothing possess his heart's desire. No need to concern yourself with friends' attempts to help. You are not forced to live as you do. Your son's offer proves that. It is your choice, your life, your simplicity, your peace and your contentment. It needs no further justification.

And I can offer all I own, even if I were selfishly doing so, for I know you want none of it.

When I offer it, what do you ask? You ask that I write to you. What can I give more easily, and am yet more stingy about? Tho I know your strength now requires nothing for its self-confidence, --tho I know you could live without my writing by accepting such a fact and living with it, --I do not desire to test your strength or to make your burden more heavy. What son has a mother who in such circumstances asks less of him!

My duty is clear, right action obvious. May I have the strength of resolve that this be the beginning of a more regular correspondence. I hope that the lesson of your stregnth in life will inspire me more often to try to add a bit you really want. I offer no more fans. If you want them ask. I hope I can write more often to a most deserving and inspiring woman. I love you.

Your Son.

The lack of correspondence from her son would eventually cease to be an issue. Lucille Feynman moved from New York to Pasadena, California, in 1959 to be closer to Richard.
posted by growli at 8:52 AM on May 12, 2005

Oh yes, and here is the official site for the book, and includes a Richard Feynman Appreciation panel video. His daughter is attractive!
posted by growli at 9:10 AM on May 12, 2005

Those are great letters. They make it abundantly clear that Feynman wasn't just smart--he was wise, too.
posted by yankeefog at 9:42 AM on May 12, 2005


Wise indeed.
posted by flippant at 10:18 AM on May 12, 2005

i join the "aww" crowd on that last letter. damn. aww. :(
posted by slater at 11:05 AM on May 12, 2005

Thanks for this post! I loved his autobiography (Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman), and these letters are delightful.

I was delighted too when I heard about the Nobel Prize, thinking as you did that my bongo playing was at last recognised. Imagine my chagrin when I realised that there had been some mistake — they cited some marks I made on paper some 15 years ago — and not one word about percussion technique. I know you share in my disappointment.
posted by Specklet at 11:27 AM on May 12, 2005

I highly recommend this supremely excellent book on Feynman Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. Despite the title of the book it does a great job of showing the whole human picture of Dr. Feynman.
posted by ozomatli at 11:42 AM on May 12, 2005

Eh. I find James Gleick's writing to be supremely lacking in wonder, given the fabulous subject matter he tends to choose. Feynman's own work is far more interesting.
posted by Caviar at 12:04 PM on May 12, 2005

My dad raised me as a Feynman devotee. He really wanted me to become a scientist...alas I am a poet. Anyway I cried reading the NYT review of the book of letters from a tiny excerpt from the one to his wife...I was bawling just now reading the full thing. Excuse me while I go buy the book.

(And I agree, Feynman's own writing is far superior to anybody else's writing about him.)
posted by Tesseractive at 12:06 PM on May 12, 2005

Best to remember Feynman for the science and the science teaching. Leave Wisdom to Granny Weatherwax.
posted by TimothyMason at 1:13 PM on May 12, 2005

Well I gotta defend Gleick here, I think it very important that he NOT approach Feynman with awe and wonder. Feyman was a complex human, not just a jolly scientist. He had some serious flaws and foibles. I love reading Feynman's own words, but any autobiographical work is not going to present the whole picture. Feynman was a great scientist and a reasonably good guy, but not a god.
posted by ozomatli at 1:18 PM on May 12, 2005

Sorry, ozomatli, I agree with Caviar: found the Gleick bio to be really dry and boring. However, Genius covers his scientific career far better than his collections of colorful anecdotes.
posted by Lord Kinbote at 1:22 PM on May 12, 2005

I thoroughly enjoyed Genius. I could read (new things) about Feynman all day every day.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 8:33 PM on May 12, 2005

Nah, Genius is rubbish. Glieck suckered me with Chaos too, but I'd learnt my lesson by the time FSTR came out. The worst thing is that Glieck never seems to grasp in detail what he's talking about, too busy admiring his subject. And Genius is also very dull. Plenty of better Feynman books out there, including of course his own.
posted by jonvaughan at 8:01 AM on May 13, 2005

the letter to his wife was sad? a heartbreaker?
naw, that was the pure beauty of love.
posted by emdog at 6:19 PM on May 13, 2005

« Older T minus one week and counting...   |   The last US battle in Southeast Asia Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments